Mistry: Spoof is harmful to Asian women

On Monday I e-mailed the “Single Asians” video — a spoof of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” full of stereotypes about Asians, and Asian women in particular, by the a capella group Mixed Company — to the members of InSight, Yale’s Asian American Women’s Forum. Obviously, racist jokes based on stereotypes are not cool. But how, I asked, does this change when those who tell them — like the four female Asian students in the Mixed Company video — are part of the satirized race?

Our consensus was that regardless of the joke teller’s race, racist jokes can be destructive because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes, the long-range effects of which cannot be controlled by the good intentions of the teller. Scanning the comments under the YouTube and IvyGate video posts, the consensus seemed to be the opposite, that racial self-parody is harmless.

“HELLO, it’s a JOKE. Are you familiar with the concept? … Lighten UP people … Calm down, Asians — you’re not the only ones who get poked fun at,” one user replied. Another mused, “I wonder what bubble all the people offended by this video are living in. For heavens sake Family Guy and The Simpsons are more offensive than this on a regular basis! …Everybody needs to chill out.” The lack of comment from those who found the video offensive was understandable: being told to “lighten up,” “calm down” and get out of your “bubble” isn’t exactly conducive to dialogue. At the risk of sounding like a killjoy not “familiar with the concept” of a joke, I’ll provide the other perspective.

I was made uneasy by parts of this video — not so much by the portrayal of Asian Americans, but by the portrayal of Asian American women. We have all heard of the Asian fetish, attraction towards Asian women that reduces them to obedient and submissive sex objects. Although this “yellow fever” may seem benign (perhaps a little creepy at most), it can have real and dangerous consequences.

Rapists have admitted to targeting Asian women precisely because they are stereotyped as more compliant. Sallie Kim and Shannon Stockdale, previous leaders of InSight before me, wrote of an alarming trend in perverse Asian fetish incidents on college campuses in a 2005 column in the News (“For Asian women, ‘fetish’ is less than benign,” April 14, 2005). Particularly shocking was their description of the videotaped rape of two Asian college students who were told by the rapists that if they reported the crimes, “the videotapes would be sent to their fathers. The three white assailants admitted targeting Asian women … because they believed that this same submissiveness and cultural shame would prevent the women from reporting the assaults.”

“Single Asians” — however inadvertently — stands alongside “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” as media that degrades and objectifies Asian women as “geisha[s] just for you” (as one line of the song says), and this not only reinforces popular perceptions of Asian women as passive and docile but also leads to real-life tragedy. In light of this, the comment made by one IvyGate reader (which perhaps wouldn’t have been made on a non-Asian themed song) becomes rather upsetting: “I’m both turned on and offended at the same time. I want an apology … and a date.”

Maybe if the four girls who appeared in the video had thought about their song in a feminist context, they would have deleted the middle two verses.

With that said, I do not believe that this video meant to say that all Asian women are China dolls. I found the other four verses to be a funny and light-hearted spoof on what are — in one IvyGate reader’s words — “the stereotypes that Asians get everyday [sic],” in the same way that my favorite movie, “Bend it Like Beckham,” is a spoof on stereotypes about South Asians.

As another IvyGate reader pointed out: “I assumed not so much that it was a parody of Asians, but more that it was making fun of people who think Asians are like that. My Asian friends always get annoyed when people assume that they’re into math and science, or that they’re Chinese when they’re not.”

Unfortunately, however, for every person who laughs at the video, understanding it to be a clever parody of a stereotype, there will be one person who doesn’t quite understand, and buys into the stereotype itself.

Kavita Mistry is a sophomore in Berkeley College and the president of InSight: Yale’s Asian American Women’s Forum and Chapter of NAPAWF.

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